The Buffalo Sabres 2021 season has rightly been considered a disaster, with the failed signing of Taylor Hall, the trade for Eric Staal, and the performance under head coach Ralph Krueger that led to the club’s 18-game losing skid and his firing last month. The Sabres initially struggled to regain its footing under interim coach Don Granato, but a shift of philosophy and giving young players more opportunity has provided a reason for optimism and potentially a chance for the longtime assistant and minor league coach to remove the interim tag.
After losing his first six games following the firing of Krueger on March 17, Granato has the Sabres playing over .500 hockey (6-5-3) with Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo shut down for the season and Hall, Staal and defenseman Brandon Montour dealt before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Granato has had success getting more out of the club’s youngsters who struggled under Krueger’s structured two-way system by accentuating their offensive attributes. Nowhere has that been more apparent than with 2017 and 2018 first-rounders Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin.
Mittelstadt was in and out of the lineup, averaged just over 13 minutes per game, and had only one goal in 13 games before Krueger’s dismissal, but under Granato is averaging nearly 17 minutes and has 11 points (8 goals, 3 assists) in 20 games.
Dahlin’s offensive skill set was what made him the top overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft, but the 21-year-old appeared confused in playing more conservatively early in the season, which led to his low scoring totals (1 goal in 28 games) and leading the NHL in negative plus/minus (-27). Under Granato, the big Swede’s role has been more well defined and his offensive numbers have improved (4 goals, 7 assists in 20 games).
2019 top pick Dylan Cozens has seen his role expand with the trade of Staal and Eichel’s season-ending injury, and youngsters Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund, Henri Jokiharju, and Anders Bjork (acquired in the deal for Hall) are thriving with increased responsibility that they did not get under Krueger.
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Buffalo is doing what teams in last place should do, giving their prospects a look in down the stretch to gauge how far away they are from being able to contribute at the NHL level.
23-year-old Finnish free agent Arttu Ruotsalainen scored at a point-per-game pace with the AHL Rochester Americans and has four goals in nine games since being called up in early April. 2018 second-rounder Mattias Samuelsson signed an entry-level contract after two seasons at Western Michigan and was promoted to the big leagues after playing 19 AHL games.
The most potentially important promotion may be 22-year-old Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The Sabres top goaltending prospect won gold at the 2019 World Junior and the OHL’s player of the year in 2019, but missed time due to hip surgery and has struggled in the minors over the last two seasons. Luukkonen made 36 saves in his NHL debut (a 6-4 win over the Boston Bruins), but a longer look may be needed before Buffalo can make a determination whether he ready to make the jump next season with goalies Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton unrestricted free agents.